Now Open: Gay bathhouses that have stood the test of time

A man relaxes in a sauna

Gay bathhouses, like gay bars, have been around for decades. In fact, they probably pre-date bars. It’s not hard to imagine men have been enjoying some steamy moments with one another in saunas, hammams, and bathhouses across various cultures going all the way back to ancient Greece.

Before private bathrooms were in vogue, most cultures developed some form of public bathing system. Communal bathing rituals, such as saunas, massage, or the use of aromatic oils, can be traced from ancient Rome to Japan.

Take Scandinavia for example, sauna culture has nearly become a part of the national identity. There are records dating back to 1112 of naked Finnish people sitting in heated, wooden sauna huts and beating themselves with branches before pouring cold water on themselves.

So, how does this rich cultural tradition intersect LGBTQ history? Before the 20th century, homosexuality was illegal almost everywhere. Unsurprisingly, gay men often cruised one another at places such as bathhouses and saunas, though not totally unperturbed. Italian authorities closed some bathhouses in the 15th century because of gay activity. French authorities did the same in Paris in the late 1800s.

One of the establishments on this list (Kaiserbrundl, pictured below), began its life as the city’s Central Bathhouse in 1887. We’ll learn more about that bit of queer history later on.

European saunas vs. United States bathhouses

Kaiserbrundl bathhouse in Vienna, Austria
Kaiserbrundl in Vienna, Austria (Photo: Kaiserbrundl)

In the US, bathhouses popular with gay men began to spring up in the late 1800s in New York City. There’s a record of a police raid on the Ariston Hotel Baths in 1903, in which 12 men subsequently faced trial on indecency charges.

The Everard was a former New York City church converted into a bathhouse in 1888. It gained a reputation for attracting lots of gay men by the 1920s. It closed in 1986.

Two of New York City’s most famous bathhouses were the Continental Baths (1968-1976), which famously featured Bette Midler as Sunday afternoon entertainment, accompanied by Barry Manilow as her pianist (before they both hit the big time).

The New St. Marks Baths was formerly a Turkish bath catering to Russian-Jewish immigrants on New York’s Lower East Side. It turned exclusively gay in the late 1960s and claimed to be the biggest bathhouse in NYC when it relaunched under its new name in 1979. It was shut down in 1985 as the AIDS epidemic swept the US. The arrival of HIV also saw San Francisco, among many other cities across the country, order its bathhouses to close.

In recent years, like much of the commercial gay scene, bathhouses have faced challenges. Not only do many gay men simply hop on apps if they’re looking for company, but rising real estate makes opening a big venue like a bathhouse, economically challenging. Though, in other parts of the world, longstanding gay bathhouses continue to flourish, particularly in Europe.

For many men, nothing rivals a visit to a bathhouse. They favor those that put effort into clean facilities and great amenities. Here are just a few of the more notable ones in Europe.

Pleasuredrome Spa Bar, London, England

Pleasuredrome Spa Bar in London
Pleasuredrome Spa Bar in London (Photo: Johan Cloete/

Running for over 20 years, Pleasuredrome is now the biggest gay spa facility in London. You’ll find it nestled beneath a couple of large railway arches beneath Waterloo Station, near the city’s Southbank.

It’s managed to stay ahead of the competition by continually investing in its facilities, which are truly state-of-the-art. During the pandemic shutdown, it used the time to undergo a revamp from top to bottom. It completely rebuilt its cabins (which can be privately booked upon arrival) and spruced up the rest of its interior, which includes a pool, two saunas, two steam rooms, open wet room showers, and a cinema section. It also has a 24-hour café bar, and open 365 days of the year, can lay claim as the only LGBTQ venue in the UK to never close.

The Locker Room, London, England

The Locker Room gay bathhouse in Kennington, London
The Locker Room in Kennington, London

One of the smaller establishments mentioned here, The Locker Room has nevertheless seen bigger rivals come and go since it first opened its doors back in 1984. It was taken over by new owners in 1999 and underwent a major refit in 2011. You’ll find it in Kennington, south London, which is a short taxi or bus ride from the gay bars of Vauxhall. You’ll find a 20-man sauna, steam room, lounge, cinema room, cabins, and playrooms.

Locals come back again and again for its attitude-free, down-to-earth welcome, plus several regular theme nights, like bears on Tuesdays. If you don’t want ultra-modern, industrial cruise spaces and want something a little more homely and local, this fits the bill.

The Pipeworks, Glasgow

The Pipeworks gay bathhouse in Glasgow, Scotland
Pipeworks in Glasgow, Scotland (Photo: Pipeworks)

The Pipeworks Men’s Health Spa is the biggest gay bathhouse in Scotland. The self-described “luxury all-male health & leisure club” was established over 13 years ago and has recently undergone a $500,000 refurbishment. Spread over three floors, amenities include a big spa pool, dry sauna, steam room, and café bar area. For those seeking a more intimate encounter, there’s also a maze of cabins, a cinema room, and several playrooms to explore. The venue is conveniently located in the heart of Glasgow city center, not far from the local gay bars.

NZ (Sauna Nieuwezijds), Amsterdam, Netherlands

NZ, or Sauna Nieuwezijds, a popular batthouse in Amsterdam
NZ, or Sauna Nieuwezijds, in Amsterdam (Photo: Jan van Breda)

Another sauna is hailed by many for being beautiful, clean, and modern. NZ is conveniently just a five-minute walk from Amsterdam Centraal Station. This well-established bathhouse has been running since 2013. It offers a full range of amenities including a Turkish bath, steam room, Finnish sauna, eight-person jacuzzi, café, plus darkroom, and lots of private cabins. It’s well-lit in the areas you want well illuminated, and more atmospheric in other parts.

Regular events include a monthly bears night (every last Saturday), and a gender-fluid night, for all gender identities and sexual orientations (every second Tuesday).

Babylon, Cologne, Germany

Babylon gay bathhouse in Cologne, Germany
Babylon in Cologne, Germany (Photo: Facebook)

Formerly called Badehaus, this large, impressive bathhouse is one of a couple such venues to explore in Cologne. Babylon offers a beautiful, outdoor pool area that’s perfect for the summer months and for those wanting to top up their tan. It’s been open for more than 30 years and offers 1,400 square meters of space to explore your sweaty and steamy fantasies. Highlights include a Finnish sauna that can hold up to 50 people, a maze-like steam sauna, and a large, whirlpool-style jacuzzi pool. There’s a better-than-average food café and a team of experienced massage therapists.

Boiler, Berlin, Germany

Boiler batthouse in Berlin
Boiler in Berlin (Photo: Boiler)

If you’re looking for some hardcore fun in Germany’s most decadent city, Boiler ticks all the right boxes. The feel of this modern, internationally famous pleasure palace is industrial chic. Imagine a space-age warehouse lit in purple and red neon.

We love the big, spacious, and clean locker rooms, and the amenities in the bathhouse area, including a Finnish sauna, smaller and cooler bio sauna, hammam, and a labyrinth-like steam room. Chill out in the large pool (complete with waterfall) or explore the private cabins. There’s also a welcoming bar and private garden for cooling off outdoors. The venue has built up a large following since first opening in 2011.

Boiler (known locally as ‘Beula’), is a short walk from Mehringdamm subway station. There’s a discreet entrance in a private backyard that also houses BKA Theater.

Kaiserbrundl, Vienna, Austria

Kaiserbrundl is one of the most amazing gay bathhouses in the world
Kaiserbrundl in Vienna, Austria (Photo: Kairserbrundl)

One of the grandest and most beautiful gay bathhouses in the world. Kaiserbrundl’s history goes back to 1889 when it began life as the Vienna Central Bath. A regular during those times was the openly gay Archduke Ludwig Viktor (known as “Luziwuzi” to his friends), brother of the Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph I. The Archduke caused a scandal when he made advances to a soldier in the baths, and was publicly slapped by the disinterested trooper. His brother, the emperor, subsequently banned him from living in Vienna. Before this drama, its central area was used as a well dating back to ancient Roman times, officially becoming a “bathing room” in 1369.

Kaiserbrundl spurs the ultra-modern feel of some gay bathhouses and fully exploits its turn-of-the-century, classical aesthetic. Stepping beneath its heavy door is a little like stepping back in time. Raunchy murals decorate some of its public areas, and it houses what’s probably the best bathhouse restaurant we’ve yet come across.

Amigo, Copenhagen, Denmark

Amigo gay bathhouse in Copenhagen
Amigo health spa in Copenhagen has been running since the mid-1970s (Photo: Amigo)

Denmark is one of the most LGBTQ-friendly countries in Europe and was the first country to legalize same-sex marriage. It’s therefore no surprise to learn that it also has one of the oldest gay bathhouses on the continent. Amigo first threw open its doors in 1974, so is a true Danish institution.

The interior may feel dated, but if you want a big building with several floors to explore, you’ll receive a warm welcome. The saunas areas are downstairs, while the fun seems to get more decadent the higher you ascend.

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